Five Italian words with unsatisfying English equivalents

If I’m speaking English with someone who I know speaks or understands Italian, I tend to inject the words below into conversation rather than use the English approximation. The Italian version is just better! Have a look at the five words below (in no particular order) and let me know if you agree, and whether there are others you’d add.

Si parla italiano



Anzi can be translated as “on the contrary”. Simple, right? Except in English it’s a mouthful. In Italian it’s a one-word zinger, ideal for the end of a sentence. For example, “It’s not that I don’t want to…. anzi“. Meaning: I want to very much. Saying “It’s not that I don’t want to…on the contrary” just doesn’t cut it. 



One definition of this word is “maybe”, but a more interesting use of the word is to mean “I wish!”, or “If only!”, as in “Come with me on vacation!” (“Dai vieni con me in vacanza!”), and the response: “Eh… magari!”. This one goes well with the hand signal that means what the heck are you talking about ….as if I could.



Sveglia means “awake”, and it means “alarm clock”, but the “sveglia” I like is an adjective defined in the dictionary as “clever”, which isn’t a perfect translation. It’s a big compliment to be called “sveglia” or “sveglio”, and personally I’d prefer to be “sveglia” than clever. Someone who is “sveglia/o” may not be brilliant or have lots of degrees or have solved some complex problem, anzi (none of those may apply). More likely it means that they are with it, they get it, they’re quick, they’re perceptive. 



Pazienza” is also a one-word zinger that does translate as “patience”, but in the same situation in English we’d say “don’t worry about it” or “go with the flow”, with a shrug. The thing about “pazienza”, is that in Italy you need quite a lot of it, so what makes the Italian word so different from the English, for me, is its cultural weight.



If it’s someone’s birthday, you say “auguri!”. If it’s New Year’s Day, you say “auguri!”. It’s the equivalent of the English “happy” in “happy birthday” or “happy new year”, except just saying “happy!” in English would get you odd looks, of course.

Got any to add or any other examples of how you use the words above? Please post in the comments!

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  1. René Seindal
    January 29, 2010

    For some reasons the exclamations are very difficult to translate – they often load a lot of subtlety in a single word.
    I remember having problems with “quindi” and “comunque” when used as exclamations.

  2. Cherrye at My Bella Vita
    January 29, 2010

    Love this post and I agree with your examples. There are several words or phrases that I prefer in Italian, too. My favorite one is the “bella/bruta figura.” It is just not the same in English!

  3. Sergio
    January 29, 2010

    So many great articles in this blog but this is just the best!
    “Pazienza” is also very related to catholic sense of acceptance: human condition brings pain and suffering, but if you are patient you’ll get your price in Heaven.
    “Auguri” does not mean “happy”, it means “good things” basically, and comes from ancient Roman men (Auguri) who claimed to be able to predict the future by looking at birds flying. They were able to predict “good things”, and that’s what you wish to a friend for his/her birthday or before christmas or in other occasions.
    Can i go on please? 🙂

  4. Madeline
    January 29, 2010

    Rene – good ones! I wouldn’t even know how to begin to explain those either, they’re so situation specific. I think you’d have to just give a million examples… 🙂
    Cherrye – Thanks! Agree with bella / brutta figura, and I seem to remember a great post of yours that featured these.
    Sergio – thanks, and yes, please go on! I didn’t know about the religious connotations of pazienza or the history of auguri. So interesting.

  5. Jacques
    January 30, 2010

    I like the mean of “Auguri” as an interjection: “good luck with that one”, or “yeah sure” in a fatalist, sure to fail sense. As in:
    Speaker 1) “I’ve been trying to get my little kid to eat more vegetables”
    Risposta) “eh, sì, auguri”
    “sveglia” in the way you are using it would seem pretty much like “on the ball” (three words, not one, I know, but still an idiomatic phrase with kinda’ similar meaning), someone who is proactive and competent. It also has a lot in common (meaningwise) with one of my all time favorite words that I learned in Italian before English: “perspicacious” (in Italian “perspicace”) that I don’t remember having ever heard used in normal conversation in English, while in Italian it is not at all uncommon.
    There is also the way my teenage daughter uses it when I miss what she is trying to say, as in “papà, sveeegliaaaa…” – “Earth calling Dad”

  6. חופשות סקי
    October 12, 2011

    Amazing post shared by you. I love to read such posts. Thanks for sharing this one.

  7. Vitaliano
    April 25, 2015

    Auguri means “whishes” (tanti auguri -> best wishes), not “happy”.
    It can be translated easily to Eng. -_-

  8. Antonio
    September 18, 2016

    I love “complimenti,” used sarcastically. Like saying “good job” in English but not meaning it.


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